An excerpt from "The Happier Approach" by Nancy Jane Smith

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a book that happens to contain a story involving a woman named “Samantha” and is not a story about or associated with Samantha Parker of Badassery Magazine. 

An excerpt from The Happier Approach by Nancy Jane Smith

Thinking positive is the belief that if we simply change our thoughts, we can change our lives.

Thinking positive and seeing the bright side has its helpful qualities. But when we use thinking positive as a tool to hammer ourselves, it becomes less helpful.  

I see this all the time in my office, where clients will stop themselves mid-vent to say:  

“I should be happy but…”

“I don’t mean to complain but…”

“I have a great life but…”

“These are champagne problems but…”

“I know I am so blessed but…”

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Here’s how “think positive” affects Samantha’s life as she takes care of her mom.

As she walks up to the front door of her mom’s house, Samantha is greeted by her mom, half-dressed and looking frazzled and exhausted. “Did you pick up my prescription?” she asks in a panicked voice. “I have to have my pills!”  

“It’s okay, Mom,” Samantha sighs as she pulls out the bag of pills “I have it. Everything is okay.”  

On top of her mom duties to her 11- and 13-year-olds, Samantha is also primary caregiver for her mom, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her dad died a year ago, and although her brothers are helpful, they don’t live locally and can only do so much. After a frenzied visit, Samantha climbs back in the car, late for her son’s cross-country meet.  

Samantha’s Monger chimes in: “Way to go, Samantha, you just keep dropping the ball, don’t you? You promised Matt you wouldn’t be late. You know you need to find a home for your mom. She is not safe in that house by herself. And work—your boss already said you can’t miss anymore days this month. You are going to lose your job on top of everything else.”

Samantha takes a deep breath. She read recently that when she gets negative, she should try to think positive. “I have a wonderful marriage. Mom is going to be fine. I get to spend all this bonus time with her. And everything will work out just fine.”

As she starts naming the positives, tears sting her eyes and start streaming down her face. She is just so tired and discouraged.  

“Suck it up, buttercup,” her Monger laughs. “You think you have it so bad. At least you can afford to send your mom to an assisted living community. You know there are people out there who aren’t as lucky as you. It could be so much worse. And here you sit. Crying your eyes out. You are such a whiner. At least your mom is still here. You can’t even do it well and you have the support of a caring husband and family. I mean imagine if you were divorced and trying to do all of this.”

Ouch. Talk about positive thinking gone wrong. But sadly, that tends to be the way of our Monger: positive thinking can become ammunition for shaming and belittling.  

Positive thinking can also put us into denial and leave us without a plan of attack. If Samantha keeps looking on the positive side, she will never be able to care for her mom the way she wants to. Not only will she be exhausted but she won’t have a good plan.  

Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at NYU, has done several studies on the dangers of positive thinking and how it impedes our ability to face long-term problems (such as caregiving). Through her research, she has discovered that thinking positive can prevent us from seeing the situation clearly and being able to develop realistic solutions. When we engage in positive thinking, sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to feel the complexity of the situation.  

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Let’s go back to Samantha:

Tears stream down Samantha’s face. Quietly she says to herself, This is so hard and it is understandable you are so tired. Take a breath and look around at the trees. Mom loved trees; remember how she would take you out and you would lay on your back looking up at the trees. Such a rush of feelings thinking back to those times. You are so grateful for them and yet they make you so sad. That’s okay. Both are true. You want Mom to live the rest of her life feeling safe and happy. We need to all sit down and have a plan to figure out how we are going to continue to care for her long term.  

As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, says: “A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t.”

When we are afraid of the “negative” side of life, we become hyper-vigilant and more stressed. Looking at our lives honestly instead and owning that everything isn’t awesome allows us to make a realistic plan for the future.  

Tips for Thinking Positive

  1. Be honest with yourself. It all starts with honesty. Honestly admitting your mistakes, challenges and weaknesses without blame and criticism. When you can be honest without the judgment then you can begin to make real change.  
  2. Beware of black-and-white thinking. Too much of anything is too much, so too much negativity can be just as bad as too much positivity. Challenge yourself to see all sides of the situation, not just all the positive or all the negative.

Self-compassion, positive thinking, and being grateful are helpful concepts, but when they are practiced in a way that prevents us from being honest about our lives and accepting our pain and challenges, they keep us stuck. It is harder to grow and achieve if we are constantly pushing our weaknesses down by telling ourselves to just “think positive” or answering our doubts with “be grateful.”

Unhooking the traditional ideas of these three concepts is challenging. Because our Monger loves absolutes, it is easy to get stuck in thinking that we should always be positive or always be grateful. When you catch yourself going to extremes with these concepts, pause and remind yourself it is okay to feel. We are supposed to feel a wide range of emotions. Slowly bring yourself back to seeing the bigger picture.

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About the Author

Nancy Jane Smith

Nancy has a Masters Degrees in Higher Education and in Community Counseling from the University of Dayton. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has spent 20+ years working as a counselor and coach. She has written three books on living happier, most notably The Happier Approach: Be Kind to Yourself, Feel Happier and Still Accomplish Your Goals. A certified Myers-Briggs®, Strong Career Assessments®, and Daring Way™ Facilitator, Nancy has brought her light-hearted, practical speaking style to corporations and nonprofits like the Bailey Cavalieri Law Firm, Wallick Communities and the NAWBO Bradyware Visionary Leadership Conference. Visit her online at www.live-happier.com.

Excerpted from the book The Happier Approach: Be Kind to Yourself, Feel Happier, & Still Accomplish Your Goals. Copyright ©2018 by Nancy Jane Smith. Printed with permission from Live Happier Publishing.

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